July 8th, 2012
A couple of days ago, I commented about my thoughts on finding a better way to listen to music, and asked for suggestions. I’ve checked out the avenues suggested, and here are my thoughts so far.
Streaming service: Spotify
Of the streaming service offerings, Spotify seems the most compelling. It has both Linux and Android clients. The Linux client is unofficial and a bit buggy, but serviceable. The service is fairly nice, and the serendipity of listening to “radio” of tracks like any track or artist I may pick is an incredible feature. It will mean a different mindset; rather than carefully choosing what I buy, I have a vast catalog at my fingertips. I’d have to give up some control, but might be better off for it.
Spotify can play local files, but sadly lacks support for FLAC that most of my collection is in. A little work with the shell, and I had a quick multi-core FLAC to MP3 conversion done. It can also identify local files and match them up with its catalog, but it does a somewhat poor job of it, despite the fact that my files are tagged by Musicbrainz. There are also a fair number of albums in my collection (from Magnatune and from local artists) that aren’t in Spotify’s catalog and probably never will be. I may wind up using git-annex or something like it to sync them between PCs.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t have any kind of web-based player available. It has a lot of features, but many of them are under-documented.
Subsonic / Supersonic
The idea of being able to stream music anywhere certainly has appeal, and the idea of streaming that music from my own machine — my own collection — is quite the appealing one. Subsonic seems to be the standard that people recommend for this. It has a web-based player that works well, as well as mobile clients for various platforms. The Android mobile client is particularly well-regarded and is probably the best one here, aside from Spotify. The playlists work well, as expected, and generally it has the appearance of a well-rounded system. There is a lot of flexibility in bitrates; maximum bitrates can be set per-user and per-client. It, of course, transcodes on the fly.
My chief gripe about Subsonic is that it has no true album/artist/genre browser. Its main browser is mostly a filesystem browser. I have used clients that show album/artist/genre panes or sortable lists, based on tags, for so long that my filesystem organization is rather different – centered around bitrate of rip, origin, etc. It is not very easy to navigate my collection in that way. The search feature can search artist and album, and this can partially make up for it. But there is simply no way to see a list of all artists in the collection.
The server is written in Java, and takes up 362MB at startup. That’s, I guess, decent for a Java server, but doesn’t make me pleased as I’d be running it on lower-end hardware.
Supersonic is a git-maintained actively synced subsonic fork which removes the license cost (the source is GPL3 anyhow so that wasn’t a big deal).
Often mentioned in the same breath as Subsonic, this is yet another frequent suggestion for streaming your own collection. Its primary player is web-based, like Subsonic. It has full artist/genre browsers, and adds tag cloud and various other options as well – by default, it loaded the tag cloud with my genre tags, which was a nice touch. The search feature is a little less robust, as it simply searches anywhere and returns a list of all matching tracks, rather than listing matching albums and artists before going into the list of all tracks. But that is somewhat of a minor nit.
Ampache’s web-based player, liks Subsonic’s, uses Flash, but the implementation is really quite awkward. You can’t simply click a play button and have playback start. Rather, you must add things to the “playlist” (queue), a frame on the web interface. Then, you must click play in THAT frame, which launches a new window for the player and transfers its contents to it. You thus have two separate running playlists. And if you think you can just add to the playlist of the player window, think again; you can only replace it. It is simply not possible to add a track to the end of that list without losing your existing place. This makes the usefulness of the web-based player rather, well, low.
Playlist functionality in Ampache is rather odd. You can have playlists, but if you want to add a track to a saved playlist, first you have to clear you current playlist, then add the track to it, then save it to the existing playlist.
Frontends for Ampache exist in banshee and in amarok. Banshee’s is broken, and simply silently fails to do anything. Unless you look in the console, in which case you’ll see a .NET backtrace. Banshee has had these mysterious errors for me for years. The Amarok plugin is so basic that you can browse by artist but not by album, and is almost unusable. There is also a rhythmbox plugin in Debian, but it is apparently for an old version of Rhythmbox and no longer works.
The best frontend is a dedicated Ampache frontend called Viridian. It has a nice interface, provides features such as taskbar integration, and generally works pretty well. The only thing it’s bad at is playlists, and here it’s even worse than the web interface. It doesn’t support modifying the server-side playlists at all. And accessing one is an annoying “load playlist” operation, that replaces your current play queue (also called the “playlist”) with its contents by default.
Several Android clients exist for Ampache, though it seems only one has seen any updates since 2010.
This is an interesting program, as it is designed more to provide multiple points of control for a single player than it is to stream a single collection to multiple devices. Nevertheless, I tested its HTTP and icecast stream modules. (It can also stream with PulseAudio, but PulseAudio causes devious breakage on my workstation, so I refuse to bother.) This could be made to work reasonably well on my LAN using the gmpc client. There are several Android clients as well, though none of them integrate as well as Subsonic or Spotify. Most seem focused on controlling a remote player. The ones that do stream do so with some hiccups, and don’t integrate controls with the lock screen.
gmpc is a reasonable control program and, combined with mplayer, makes a decent player. It can browse the database every way I’d want to. It doesn’t let me right-click on tracks to add them to playlists, but I can use copy/paste to do so, or add them to the play queue and from there to a playlist. It’s annoying, but not completely unworkable.
But here’s the real concern. mpd has no provision whatsoever for any sort of encryption such as SSL. If I want to be listening to my music collection from on the road, I don’t really wish to open up a streaming music service for the entire Internet. Nor do I really want to mess with SSH tunnels and the like, which are cumbersome on Android (and can be in general). This is pretty much a fatal flaw to me.
An interesting service, but ultimately one I don’t see the point for in my situation – where I already have my music on a PC that is always on. It would probably accommodate my entire collection free, but how many weeks would it take me to get it there? And how would it stay in sync? It simply doesn’t offer me any compelling advantage over streaming direct from my PC, so I don’t see much need to bother with it.
I briefly considered Streeme (poor mobile support), Audiogalaxy (no Linux support), Jinzora (appears dead), and Sockso (no mobile support). I also briefly considered other streaming services such as Pandora, Slacker, rdio, etc., but based on reviews didn’t think that they were worth bothering with.
I’m left mainly considering Spotify and Subsonic. For right now, I’m going to try Spotify and see where that leads me, but may wind up getting back to Subsonic if I can’t find tracks I want with Spotify.